Armed Taliban now stand guard in front of the gaping rock cavities that once housed two ancient Buddha statues, desecrated with dynamite by the Islamists during their last stint in power.
The monuments of Bamiyan province had existed for 1,500 years but their destruction was ordered in 2001 by this regime – already infamous then after having banned television and imposed ultra-strict rules governing the conduct of women – to be against the Muslim faith.
Hundreds of executives from across the country spent more than three weeks demolishing towering statues carved into the side of a cliff, sparking a global uproar.
“The Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban authorities in 2001,” reads a bronze plaque carved into the stone, while the white flag of the country’s new rulers flies over a nearby gatehouse.
Two young fighters stroll casually a few meters away.
The new Afghan Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund was “one of the architects of the destruction of the Buddhas,” according to historian Ali A. Olomi of Penn State Abington University.
When asked if it had been a good idea to blow up the statues – considered one of the biggest crimes against World Heritage – young Taliban member Saifurrahman Mohammadi made no secret of his embarrassment.
“Well … I can’t really comment,” said Mohammadi, recently appointed to the cultural affairs office of Bamiyan province.
“I was very young,” he told AFP. âIf they did, the Islamic Emirate must have had its reasons.
“But what is certain is that now we are committed to protecting the historical heritage of our country. It is our responsibility.”
Mohammadi said he recently spoke with UNESCO officials who fled overseas after the Taliban took power to ask them to return to Afghanistan and ensure their safety.
Local officials and former UNESCO employees formerly based there told AFP that a thousand priceless items once stored in nearby warehouses were stolen or destroyed after the Taliban took power .
“I confirm that looting did take place, but that was before our arrival,” said Mohammadi, attributing the thefts to the vacuum left by the former authorities after their flight.
“We are investigating and trying to recover them,” he added.
Crossroads of civilizations
The Bamiyan Valley is nestled in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountain range and marks the westernmost reach of Buddhism from its birthplace in the Indian subcontinent.
Persian, Turkish, Chinese and Greek influences have also crossed paths here over the centuries and have left behind an extraordinary built environment, much of which remains unexplored.
The statues survived a 17th-century incursion by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, and then those of Persian King Nader Shah, which damaged them by cannon fire.
Traces of it remain lying around the Bamiyan site under canvas tents, torn by the winds from the valley.
World Heritage specialists strongly doubt that they will ever be rebuilt.
But the new Taliban regime insists it wants to protect the country’s archaeological heritage, despite the global shock triggered by images of Buddhas disappearing in clouds of dust.
As the country’s economy collapses, “they realize that heritage protection work provides them with regular income,” said Philippe Marquis, director of the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan.
Workers are working in Bamiyan to put the finishing touches to a cultural center and museum as part of a US $ 20 million UNESCO-backed project set to open with great fanfare this month.
“Now we have to see how it will work,” said Philippe Delanghe, head of the culture program at the UNESCO office in Kabul, currently based in France.
“The current administration wants us to come back to work together. It seems pretty safe,” he added.